We can self-edit of course, and we do it all the time. Writers have built-in editors who can get maddeningly bossy and too big for their boots. They muscle in when they’re not wanted and in fact can stop us writing altogether by being too critical too soon. Striving for literary perfection, especially in the early stages, is confidence-sapping and can be the end of a good story before it’s properly begun - smothered to death.
There is a time for an internal editor to sharpen the red pencils, and it’s not while the work is being created. That’s when writers need the freedom to make mistakes, dart off in unexpected directions, change characters’ names in mid-dialogue, transform a cosy English village murder mystery into a vampire thriller, toss in a couple of bombshells or move the setting from Amsterdam to Zanzibar – by spaceship. No editor, whether in-built or helpful friend, would tolerate such rampant slap-dashery.
For fiction at least, and to some extent non-fiction too, slap-dashery is close to essential. It’s one of the best ways to get any writing done. It’s afterwards, when the mess has been sorted out and tidied up, that the editorial self – the one in our heads – can be cut loose to start polishing. After that, most of us depend on an eagle-eyed, reasonably patient friend to catch the misplaced commas, the spelling mistakes, the lapses of taste and sometimes even the glaring holes in the plot, because we are too close to our own work to see it properly.
Only a few will ask for help from professional editors. The work is time-consuming and can be fiddly, and therefore too expensive for most writers. An editor is a kind of literary whistle-blowing policeman who blocks the way, scrutinises the work, pats it down in search of concealed pitfalls, warns against going down this ill-advised road or that. The scope is spelling, punctuation and grammar at one end, right through to re-shaping whole books at the other.
It’s an editor’s job to keep writers out of literary trouble. It is not, however, to mess with an individual writer’s style or tone. Those writing in language born out of texting, tweeting and Twilight-talk, extravagant and spiky with !!! and apostrophes in the wrong places but oh so alive, have a right to do their own thing and be safe from that disapproving red pencil when it comes to style. It follows that writer and editor should be sympathetically paired and work together, otherwise advice from one will be ignored by the other. Result: a waste of time, and hissy fits all round.